Movie Reviews: KINO/21 German Film Festival

October is around the corner, which means it’s time again for one of my favourite film festivals in Hong Kong – KINO, the German film festival that is hosted each year by the Goethe-Institut. Their selection of films is always diverse, with both topical and thought-provoking films and some comedic fare thrown in for good measure. This year’s edition is an all-physical event as we’ve been successful at keeping Covid out of HK for a few months now. Due to social distancing measures that are still in place though, the festival’s traditional opening night after-party has unfortunately been scrapped for another year.

KINO/21 will run from October 15 to 24, 2021. Opening night will again take place at the Louis Koo Cinema at the HK Arts Centre in Wanchai with other screenings held at the Broadway Cinematheque, Premiere Elements and the Hong Kong Film Archive. Eight new and award-winning full-length German films will be screened at this year’s event, kicking off with the romcom, KISS ME BEFORE IT BLOWS UP.

Kiss Me Before It Blows Up

Years ago, Pat Benatar sang about love being a battlefield and that’s certainly the case for Israeli Shira (Moran Rosenblatt, TV’s FAUDA) and German Maria (Luise Wolfram). The women met when Shira went to Germany following the breakup of her last relationship. Now, just three months later, Maria has moved to Israel to be with Shira. Through a misunderstanding, Shira thinks that Maria has proposed to her and she accepts. Now Shira has to tell her family. While they are very accepting of the couple getting married, it’s not without its stresses. Shira’s father, Ron (John Carroll Lynch, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7; JACKIE; TV’s AMERICAN HORROR STORY, would like to see Maria convert to Judaism so that their children will be Jewish. Her mother, Ora (Irit Kaplan, A MATTER OF SIZE), can’t wait to recoup all the money she’s shelled out over the years on friends’ children’s wedding gifts. It’s Ora’s mother, though, who’s the big problem. Berta (Rivka Michaeli, Israel’s GOLDEN GIRLS) was a hidden child during WWII and she feels that behind every good German is a Nazi ancestor. With Shira and Maria’s relationship holding together by a small piece of metal, Maria’s parents decide to visit her in Israel.

KISS ME BEFORE IT BLOWS UP presents an amusing look at how many Germans and Israelis view each other today. Refreshingly, Shira and Maria being lesbians is not an issue here, no doubt reflecting the fact that Israel is recognised as the most gay-friendly country in the Middle East. (According to the Gay Travel Index of 2020, Israel ranks 23rd amongst all countries. Hong Kong, by comparison, ranks 66th.) But nothing in Israel is ever simple, with politics and history always coming into play no matter what the situation. First-time feature director and writer Shirel Peleg deftly balances all three to create a heartwarming tale of modern relationships and families.

Freies Land (Free Country)

Fans of the TV show TRUE DETECTIVE will find a lot to like about this German adaptation of the 2014 Spanish film, LA ISLA MÍNIMA (MARSHLAND). Set just two years after Germany’s reunification, Hamburg police detective Patrick Stein (Trystan Pütter, TRANSIT; TONI ERDMANN) is assigned to investigate the case of two missing teenaged sisters in far-flung Löwitz, a run-down town located near the Polish border. Paired with him is Markus Bach (Felix Kramer), a lumbering detective from Bautzen in the former East Germany whose sleuthing methods seem to indicate his past in the Stasi. While many in the town tell the men that the young women probably left to find work in the West, something that many of the town’s young people either have already done or are considering doing, the girls’ mother doesn’t think that’s the case this time. As the two men begin to dig deeper, the sisters’ bodies are found in a nearby river, tortured and sexually abused. Forensic clues from other missing young women also turn up and it becomes evident that a serial killer has been at work here for at least a few years, something that no one in the town wants to discuss.

Director Christian Alvart (BANKLADY; TV’s DOGS OF BERLIN) does a fabulous job evoking the general malaise and distrust that many East Germans must have felt in the early years of reunification. In small towns like Löwitz, inefficient factories were being shut down, local workers were being replaced by Poles who were willing to work for far lower wages and young people were packing their bags and heading west. Shooting the film in November, Alvart uses the environment to illustrate the bleak outlook and slow death these towns no doubt faced back then. That theme is also reflected in Bach who may have prostate cancer and is haunted by a crow.

FREIES LAND is far from being a typical chalk-and-cheese buddy cop movie. There’s no mutual understanding or friendship to be gained here between Stein and Bach. They tolerate each other as two detectives with a shared goal would but they don’t respect each other. There is too much history between the two Germanys for that to happen. Performances all around are excellent, especially Kramer, who worked with Alvart on DOGS OF BERLIN. In interviews he comes across as affable and jovial. Here, as Bach, he’s a brute, contrasting greatly with Stein’s by-the-book detective style. Music by Christoph Schauer, who also worked with Alvart on DOGS OF BERLIN, contributes to the film’s moody feeling.

That’s just two of the eight films on view at the festival. There’s plenty more that’s well worth seeing. For more information about KINO/21 and the full programme, visit their website at www.goethe.de/hongkong/kino21. Tickets are on sale right now with prices ranging from $70 to $150. Student discounts are also available. Don’t wait too long to get yours because the screenings always sell out.

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